Over the past year, M&M’s has been the subject of Fox News rants and criticism from a small segment of fans, first by changing the shoes of Green M&M’s and more recently with female M&M characters on its packaging for International Women’s Day.
So this week he announced a change: After the deluge of attention, his characters go to a “indefinite pause”, handing over to the spokesman responsibilities of actress and comedian Maya Rudolph.
Given the huge attention, some think the M&M ad is a public relations stunt to promote their upcoming Super Bowl commercial. But experts point out that not all advertising is good. And M&M’s may be trying to regain control of a narrative that has gotten out of hand.
“I think M&M ran into a more political debate than they expected,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
M&M’s relatively subtle changes aimed at inclusion didn’t seem designed to stir up much, if any, controversy. But that was not how things turned out.
M&M’s first changes to their characters were revealed in January 2022, such as swapping Green’s go-go boots for sneakers and swapping out other characters’ shoes in what the company called an effort to make the characters be more relevant and inclusive. His message was similar in September by adding Purple, a new female character. Then, earlier this month, the company celebrated Women’s Day by flipping the M in its logo upside down to look like a W, a typographical trick that McDonald’s used five years ago.
Fox News derisively deemed the brand “woke” after the brand altered the characters’ shoes. Tucker Carlson complained about the new and, from his perspective, less “sexy” look of the candy characters.
“M&M’s won’t be satisfied until every last cartoon character is profoundly unappealing,” Carlson said.
The drinking machine was also spinning online, from Twitter to posts. In the Washington Post, for example, an op-ed stated “M&M’S changes are not progressive. Give Green his boots back.” And after the introduction of Purple and the Women’s Day package, Fox News once again took aim at the brand.
“What M&M’S has tried to do in the last few years is to be very inclusive and make sure that these characters play out in a positive way,” said Calkins, the Northwestern professor. “They have been quite deliberate in their efforts to do that.”
What they did not want was to end up being targeted by right-wing commentators. “I think they weren’t desperately out to become a target for Fox News,” Calkins said. “There are only two ways you can really play here. Either you have to get away from the characters, or you have to stand up and fight for real.”
This week’s announcement suggests that M&M’s decided to go with the former option. But he’s doing it with a nod to controversy, a strategy that may ultimately work to his advantage.
Yes, of course, the brand can carry it out.
When M&M’s announced its partnership with Maya Rudolph, it alluded to the reaction to Green’s shoes.
“Over the past year, we’ve made a few changes to our beloved sweet spokespersons,” M&M’s said. “We weren’t sure if anyone would notice. And we definitely didn’t think it would break the internet. But now we get it, even candy shoes can be polarizing.”
To say that the reaction to Green’s shoes broke the internet may be overstating it, to the benefit of M&M. But the statement itself sparked more reactions online, with other brands. like A&W piggybacking to get attention themselves.
And it’s hard to measure the sales impact of character changes or the reaction to them. The brand has seen a “record amount of interest and conversions about our sweet spokespeople,” according to a spokesperson. But owner Mars, who is private, doesn’t share sales figures.
Rudolph will star in an upcoming ad during the game, but the company announced the commercial in December ahead of the latest round of criticism, adding that the partnership wasn’t just a knee-jerk move.
The Rudolph deal has been “in the works for a while,” Gabrielle Wesley, director of marketing for Mars Wrigley North America, said in a statement this week. “Let me say conclusively that this decision is not a reaction, but rather an endorsement of our M&M’s brand,” Wesley said.
As for spokespersons, they may be on the bench for now, but they’re not going anywhere.
“The colorful original cast of sweet M&M spokespeople are currently pursuing other personal passions,” Wesley said. Fans will learn more about his situation in the coming weeks, according to the brand.
A snickers tweetalso owned by Mars, suggests they could be used in the chocolate bar campaign.
However, it would not be unusual for M&M’s to take spokespeople out of the spotlight. The characters have been around since the 1950s, but over the years, M&M’s have more or less relied on them in promotions.
But there is a risk of going backwards, said Geraldo Matos, an associate professor of marketing at Roger Williams University. Customers may wonder if M&M’s has turned its back on the original plan to use inclusion ideas to market its product. “They may have put themselves right in the middle of upsetting both parties.”
Giving the characters a break seems like a good strategy for Lauren Labrecque, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Rhode Island.
“I think they will bring the characters back and probably within a year, if not less,” he predicted. “And when they come back, people, especially M&M fans, will have forgotten what the controversy was and they’ll be very welcoming.”
Also, he added, this is a low-risk situation. “It’s not a serious outrage,” she said. On the spectrum of brand disputes, “this is so inconsequential.” For all that, “it’s going to be a positive net result.”
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